Sunday, March 11, 2007

Southeast Missouri's Strangest Hunt

In December 1932, St. Louis business owner Denver Wright called together 18 hunters and almost 22 "husky Negroes" to assist him in what he called "America's Strangest Safari." Wright planned to release 2 lions on Hog Island (a 200 acre batture island in the Mississippi River about two miles from here) and hunt them in the course of one week. His purpose for the hunt was outlined in the first paragraphs of his book, Missouri Lion Hunt: "I don't believe there are any thrills in hunting lions in Africa that we can't experience in southeast Missouri."

Wright was born in 1889 to an impoverished family in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The Wright family moved to Caruthersville and then to Cape Girardeau, Missouri where Denver began working as a leather cutter for a shoe factory. In 1918, Denver started his own leather manufacturing company, The Wright Company, in St. Louis, but longed to spend more time outdoors. He was an avid and skillful hunter, which he attributed to his youthful experiences hunting small game with slingshots and small rifles. Wright merely wanted the challenge of hunting lions in Missouri; he even hired a filmmaker to document the experience (The Lure of the Beast, by R. Chalmers Bennett). He writes his account of the lion hunt in the third person, sometimes referring to himself as "the courageous Wright."

Wright called together hunters from southeast Missouri who were familiar with Hog Island. Members of his party included the mayor of East Prairie, Frank Davis, who three years later would spearhead an effort to save 80 acres of bottomland hardwood forest from timber harvest, and Ted Bennett, Brother Bennett's father. Wright claims to have "ordered" the lions from Africa. The lion dealer guaranteed that the lions were wild caught, untamed animals, but later reports in various newspapers claim that both lions were "renegade, toothless remnants of a bankrupt circus." One was reportedly named Catherine de Medici.

The plan was simple. Wright, his son, Charles, and the motley crew of hunters and filmmakers from the area were to drive the lions from St. Louis to the bootheel. The crew would pitch camp and release the lions on the second morning. The third day Denver and Charles Wright would hunt the lions. The other members of the party were there to guard the camp from the released animals and to prepare rather lavish camp breakfasts (French toast, eggs, bacon, tenderloin, etc.). The 22 African American men, called "beaters", were instructed to go into the forest ahead of the two hunters. The beaters carried nothing but long sticks to defend themselves and the hunters from the lions.

Before pitching camp at Hog Island, Wright brought the lions to the local elementary school to show them to the students. When Wright asked the mayor, who was on his team, why he wasn't presented a key to the city, the mayor said "there is no lock on the City's door. You are always welcome, just use the latch."

The first day on Hog Island was stormy. The lions were fed pork steaks in their pens. Ted, identified by Wright as a "typical bearded southeast Missouri woodsman" was instrumental in setting up the camp. Barbed wire was installed around all the tents and the campfire ring so that if the lions happened to get out of their holding pen, they might be deterred for a few moments before barging through the camp. During the night, the stormy weather disturbed the hunters' rest. Several men were convinced the animals had escaped their pen; they checked repeatedly through the night to make sure the lions were still caged. Ted and several others stood guard around the camp all night. One of the beaters made an elaborate dinner. Wright slept peacefully in his tent.

On January 13, 1933, the lions were let loose. Ted stood on top of the pen and pulled the latch. The beaters stood in front of the hunters who were "safely" inside the barbed wire fence. Everyone in the party expected the lions to barge out of the pen and disappear into the woods. Instead, one lion slowly ambled out of the pen and began licking and scratching himself a mere 100 yards away from the camp. Rather than using the chute that was built for him, the lion casually broke through the barbed wire, marched through the camp and went into the woods. After several minutes, the second lion finally made his way out of the cage and walked towards the other lion. They began fighting and then took off into the underbrush. A few hours later one lion came back to the camp and loitered all day while the other one rested 1/4 mile away. Around 1:30 am, both lions began roaring, which frightened everyone in the camp. The animals would be hunted just after sunrise.

The following morning, after a long breakfast, the beaters led Denver and Charles Wright into the woods to look for the lions. Both cats had not left the immediate vicinity of camp; one lion was found 500 yards away from camp and the other 300 yards. Wright raised his small caliber Savage rifle and shot at the first animal. He approached the wounded animal and saw that the lion was still very much alive. Wright shot the animal again and killed him.

The second cat was nearby. As the Wrights approached him "the huge cat drew into springing position, forepaws well out in front, hindquarters up under the body, tail swishing the sand behind him into little sand showers. The approach of his mortal enemies made no impression on the beast save to increase his arrogance."

The rest of Wright's narration fills only half a page. The second cat was killed, the beaters trussed both cats and took them out of the woods. Wright quickly returned to St. Louis where he was admittedly "anxious to get out of hunting clothes, get back to civilization, a bath and rest." Ted and the mayor picked up the camp and took down all the barbed wire.

When Wright was contacted by local newspapers to give an account of his lion hunt, he repeated what he had written in his initial proposal offered to the citizens of Mississippi County:
There is nothing wrong with the lion hunt idea. For centuries kings of foreign countries have imported big game which they have liberated and killed within their barricaded private hunting grounds. Game and Fish Departments in this and other countries raise quail, pheasants, turkeys, deer, etc., in captivity, which they liberate for the sole purpose of sportsmen killing. Lions are destructive, dangerous. The former are harmless and self-supporting if given their liberty.

To close his book, Wright pays the citizens who worked for him a big compliment: "I don't think I'll ever be able to let those folks down in Mississippi County know how I appreciate their kindness to me. They're the salt of the earth." That's the least he could say. Brother swears that his father was the one who shot the lions.


Anonymous said...

Ted Bennett, the "bearded woodsman" was my grandfather. It is nice to see some of my own history on the internet. Thanks.

Donna Mann
Annapolis, MO

Ashley said...

Denver was my Great Grandpa...thanks for the neat post!

Allison Vaughn said...

I'm so honored to have written something that both sides of the story's descendents have read!

Anonymous said...

I am also the great granddaughter of Denver M. Wright. I grew up around many if his big game hunt trophies. He was a very loving man.